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December Book Club - Antonio Damasio: Feeling & Knowing Making Minds Conscious

by Christine Petrides

Welcome to the month of December! This month is book club month and we couldn’t be more excited!

As you might already know, this month we are reading the newest book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio called Feeling & Knowing; Making Minds Conscious.

I chose this book because let’s be honest, I liked that it was a small book about consciousness. Funny enough Damasio brings this up right in the beginning. Damasio tells us about how he has been disappointed in the past by books he’s poured his soul into, crafting the best detailed “scaffolding” for his ideas and arguments only to find that readers hadn’t even picked up on the bits he found most interesting, but instead got a bit lost in the details.

His editor asked him if he could write a small book about consciousness and Damsio jumped at the chance to craft what he felt would be the essentials only.

Although small in length, this book is far from small in its ideas. I mean this is after all a book about consciousness.

In contrast to what I’ve heard so many times about the “hard problem of consciousness” Damasio seems to have another idea. He believes it’s a solvable problem, like all others problems, he says, given the right tools and collected information. He believes we have already accumulated enough to know.

Damasio takes us on a journey of how we have evolved, neuronally speaking, and what that has offered us as a species. It’s a book about functionality, purpose, and conditions. We learn about what Damasio believes is the function of consciousness, how he believes it has come to exist, how it has evolved and how that governs our human experience.

This book is simple, yet evocative, confusing at times, yet also really clear. What I mean by this is I’m captured by the simplicity of his theory. Damasio says that consciousness is the result of a set of conditions. As species evolve to become more functionally and systemically complex there is a need for a nervous system to coordinate that. And the result is something he describes as a sort of “explicit” minding, the ability be aware of and to influence an experience.

He talks about the single cell and how it has what he calls a more “implicit” minding, which is a kind of reactivity surrounding the maintenance of homeostasis. Single cells are governed by a simple system that keeps them alive by finding environments that support the sustaining of life. Humans are also doing this, but we have the benefit of both implicit and explicit intelligence to draw from. We will be able to talk more about this in February as we read some papers on the topic of allostasis (in brief the mechanisms aimed at maintaining homeostasis).

I don’t think that Damasio is arguing that the nervous system is the equivalent to consciousness, but that it is a necessary component for consciousness to emerge. He makes a point to say that the nervous doesn’t work alone, but a tool for complex systems to organize.

I suppose my main question as I continue to read this book is … is this a reductionist theory of consciousness?

I sort of love the mysteriousness of the “implicit” minding, this idea of an innate bodily guidance that we have (partly) governing our experience. It certainly falls in line with what some people might call somatic knowledge/experiences, or even perhaps a way that some people might describe embodiment. It also fits with some of my own personal beliefs about inner wisdom and intuitive knowing. But even as I write this sentence I can’t help but feel there is something not quite right about that. Is it another form of mind/body dualism?

Because of this, I’m trying to understand reductionism more.

Reductionism according to the oxford language dictionary is:

“the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.”

If I read that definition, I can’t help but think that this book is exactly that. A claim to sufficiently describe a complex phenomena in simple terms.

Or is this all just a pragmatic way of describing the complex interacting of two governing systems (of a multi-systemed organism) commingling to create what we know to be our human experience? Maybe we are a mind and a body that commingle, that feed back and forth into each other, making it impossible to separate them in the end. Would that still be considered reductionist, just because there was an evolution to get to that place?

There are other problems with his explanations though. But I don’t want to get into them all here. I think we should talk about them together at the discussion. I hope you’ll join us!!

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